Seat of splendour

Vijaya Pratap | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 04, 2015

The ‘Iron Door’ where every fresher is received with a kick in the heels.   -  Vijaya Pratap

The Johannine Library, an example of baroque grandeur   -  Vijaya Pratap

Coimbra, home to one of the oldest universities in the world, is a place of love, romance, wisdom and education

As the car approaches the riverfront city of Coimbra, I look out curiously, only to be overawed by the soaring towers of the 700-year-old Coimbra University. It looms large on the hilltop, majestic and a bit intimidating. Coimbra has a distinguished place in Portuguese history as it is the country’s former capital. The city’s distinct, historic centre streams down the hillside making a lovely setting, while the collage of buildings span nearly a millennium. Today it is known more for its historic Coimbra University, which is one of the oldest in the world.

“Coimbra is a place of love, romance, wisdom and education,” says my guide Pedro, a former university student. The 14th-century love story of Pedro and Ines is still remembered in Coimbra, and young university students dominate its cityscape.

We drive past the University Botanical Gardens and the Roman aqueduct. Atop the hill, the huge university buildings offer a cool shade against the sweltering heat. I see students in their flowing ‘Capa e Batina’ (cloak and cassock). The robe seems to have inspired JK Rowling to create a similar one for the Harry Potter series. A heritage of the ecclesiastical cassock of medieval times, this dress when worn almost reaches the floor. A student wraps me in a cloak and I pose for pictures with a beaming group. In the students’ briefcase are large coloured ribbons representing different faculties which are burnt during the ‘Burning of the Ribbons’ ceremony at the end of their study. Fabio Monteiro, a young student, takes us through the famous ‘Iron Door’, where every fresher is received with a kick in the heels (a severe one in olden times but milder these days). The Iron Door Square is where the ‘ripping act’ takes place after graduation. Students assemble here upon graduation to celebrate with friends and family. Their clothes are ripped apart, trousers, cassock, shirt and all, leaving only the shirt collar and the cloak which is to be kept until one’s death. During the ceremonial tearing of the cloak, friends stand on the right, family on the left and girlfriend or wife at the back and do their share of ripping. The statues and the Iron Door are covered with shreds of black and white cloth after this ritual, says Pedro.

I see a number of girls on the campus. Though the first girl student was registered in 1891, a steady stream of them started to come in from 1920s and 30s. Now 55 per cent of the students are girls. Indian students come to Coimbra mostly for medical studies as the university boasts a strong medical faculty and the city offers the best healthcare in Portugal.

As we enter the famous and most visited Johannine Library, I am awestruck at its baroque grandeur. The majestic door has an inscription exhorting the Portuguese to use books as the weapons to attain wisdom. The facade is relatively simple when compared to the opulence inside. Three magnificent square rooms have interesting frescos painted on the ceilings; the book shelves contain 18th-century golden carving and the wood is effectively covered by gold leaf; some of them display Chinese drawings. Inverted pyramid-shaped pillars support the narrow balcony (exclusive to the Portuguese baroque), and ladders which allow access to the upper shelves are cleverly recessed into the bookshelves. Currently, there are about 60,000 books in the library, all belonging prior to 1755, and the majority are in Latin, while some are in Greek and Hebrew.

Fabio says that the library still depends on the age-old practice of using bats to protect books from insects that feed on paper. The only side effect is the bats’ excrement which is acidic and might damage the tables; so at the end of the day, the furniture is covered for protection. I am touched when Fabio arranges to show me rare Atlases with maps depicting India. I recognise Kannur in Kerala and other East and West Indian coastal towns where Vasco da Gama made his presence felt. My pictures, clicked through glass, may be imperfect, but are of rare value to me.

At the academic prison, which was originally an ancient jail that was found during excavations and later used to punish troublemaking students, Fabio sportingly poses as a convict behind bars while I click pictures. As we walk down the hill, through the old town, Pedro shows me the statue of Trikana with a pitcher, symbolising the pretty plebeian women who stole the heart of many a student. Poetry born out of this passion became fado and students of Coimbra sing fado that is distinct from the one sung in Lisbon. Sung only by men, it is considered more romantic and melancholic, while that of Lisbon is more cheerful. I peep into a few souvenir shops while listening to the fado that Pedro gloats about.

After the long walk, we stop at the foot of the hill, for coffee and pastry at Pastelaria Briosa. We feast on Coimbra’s celebrated Pastel Tentugal — a rectangular pastry filled with egg, cream and sugar, and a Santa Clara-pastry filled with egg, cream and almond, previously made in convents. Well, Coimbra scores on gastronomy too.

Travel log

Get there

Lisbon is connected by major airlines like Lufthansa and Swiss Air. Coimbra can be reached by train or by road: it takes around two hours.


Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas is a luxury hotel set within an 18th-century palace in the heart of Coimbra. The palace, handed down by Kings and Emperors, was restored in all its glory and is now a monumental hotel which honours the love story between the beautiful noblewoman Inês de Castro and Prince Pedro.


Don’t miss the romantic gardens of the hotel, where one can find the Fountain of Tears, the spot where Inês was murdered, one can see the blood smeared stones even now.

Vijaya Pratap is a Hyderabad-based travel writer and documentary filmmaker

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Published on December 04, 2015
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